The Role of the Russian Federation in War in Abkhazia, 1992

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The conflict in Abkhazia was heightened by the involvement of Russia, mostly on the Abkhaz side, especially during the war’s initial stages. Whereas Russia has endorsed the territorial integrity of the Republic of Georgia, Russian arms found their way into Abkhaz hands, Russian planes bombed civilian targets in Georgian-controlled territory, Russian military vessels, manned by supporters of the Abkhaz side, were made available to shell Georgian-held Sukhumi, and at least a handful of Russian-trained and Russian-paid fighters defended Abkhaz territory in Tkvarcheli.

The motives of Russian military involvement have been the subject of much speculation. It has been regarded by some as post-imperial meddling, as genuine humanitarianism by others, and by still others as something in-between. The Russian role in this conflict has in part foreshadowed the brutal Russian behavior in Chechnya, and has contributed to a pattern of Russian disregard for human rights and violations of the laws of war.

Our sole purpose in investigating Russia’s military involvement is to determine the extent to which it was responsible for committing violations of the laws of war and assisted abusive parties in committing atrocities; and determine as well at what level of military command abuse was permitted, or even ordered to be carried out. Our focus on Russian involvement in the war should in no way detract from the responsibility of the major combatant parties for human rights abuses.

Russia has played a decisive role in determining the course and outcome of the war in Abkhazia, both positive and negative, because it has immediate stakes in the conduct of military action and its outcome. Stability in the region is important to Russia, which shares a border with Georgia, including Abkhazia. Abkhazia is a fertile area, and a treasured resort spot, particularly for the Moscow elite. Russia has also sought to protect ethnic Russians living in the region.

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Throughout the conflict, Moscow maintained official neutrality, condemned human rights violations, and imposed sanctions on both Georgia and Abkhazia in response to their misconduct. It also provided essential humanitarian assistance, such as delivering emergency supplies, particularly to areas where there was a significant Russian minority in jeopardy, and evacuating civilians trapped in the fighting. From the first days of the war, Russia assigned diplomats to facilitate the peace process, and in 1994 deployed peacekeeping troops to enforce the cease-fire. Its military facilities and personnel, stationed in Georgia since before the break-up of the Soviet Union, came under attack and eventually Moscow gave the order to return fire.

Numerous Russian foreign policy statements have shown that Russia perceives special prerogatives and responsibilities for itself throughout the former Soviet Union. These prerogatives are legalized through bilateral accords and through a series of agreements that link almost all of the former Soviet republics under the rubric of the Commonwealth of Independent States. At the beginning of the outbreak of hostilities in Abkhazia, the Georgian leadership had consistently opposed joining the C.I.S., fearing it would impinge on Georgia’s hard-won independence. Additional treaties regulating bilateral military relations with Russia, including the fate of Russian bases on Georgian soil, had not yet been finalized. Some analysts argue that a Georgian defeat was in Russia’s strategic interest because it would make Georgia more willing to grant Russia military and political concessions. With the cessation of hostilities, Georgia has indeed acceded to the C.I.S. treaty, agreed to allow Russia to maintain three military bases in Georgia, and agreed to an open-ended Russian military presence in the form of peacekeepers in the break-away territory of Abkhazia. It is this scenario more than any other that may explain why Russia has neither acknowledged its own responsibility, nor condemned the acts of others when Russian weapons found their way into the hands of Georgia’s enemy and Russian planes and ships were used to attack Georgian-controlled territory.

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Human Rights Watch, 1995

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